Lodewijk's father, Karel Mortelmans, was a printer but also a music lover and member of music associations. His older brother Frans became a painter.
Lodewijk's musical talent came to light when, for the sake of his brother, a piano was brought into the house, which became irrestible for our future composer. At the age of 12, he became a choirboy in the Predikheren Church and he served the percussion in the Opera in Antwerp.
He attended the Flemish Music School (Vlaamse Muziekschool) and was trained by Jan Blockx (harmony and instrumentation), Joseph Tilborghs (counterpoint and fugue), A. Cornette Sr. (Literary history) and the director Peter Benoit (composition and orchestration).
In 1887 his song, De Bloemen en de Sterren (The Flowers and the Stars), was crowned in a Flemish-Dutch tournament in Roeselare; in 1889 he obtained a second prize in the Prix de Rome; in 1891 his symphony Germania was crowned by the Académie Royale de Belgique and in 1893 he received the First Prize in the Prix de Rome with the cantata Lady Macbeth.
In addition to his musical education, Mortelmans showed a strong interest in literature and plastic arts. He was intrested in Homer and was a regular museum visitor. The precipitation of that interest is found in his compositions: the increasingly refined text choice and text interpretation in his song art; composing a Homeric symphony and the painterly inspiration in Fra Angelico's dancing angels, one of his best sketches for piano.
Moreover, he was a great naturalist: for hours he wandered through the Kempen and the Polders, where he would later withdraw. Naturalism was also an important source of inspiration for Mortelmans, including in orchestral works such as 'Het wielewaalt and leeuwerkt' and in numerous Lieder, such as 'Hoe schoon de Morgendauw' or 'Meidag'.
In 1899 a Mortelmans festival took place in Antwerp, where his symphonic compositions were enthusiastically received. From that moment on, Mortelmans was regarded as the leading figure of the Antwerp music scene and, together with Gilson and De Boeck, as an innovator of Flemish music.
In 1901 the pedagogical career of Mortelmans began: he was appointed teacher counterpoint and fugue at the Royal Flemish Conservatory of Music, a position that he held until 1924, when he was promoted to the director of the institution. In addition, he was a teacher at the Interdiocesan Church Music School in Mechelen. As an excellent pedagogue, Mortelmans has formed the most important Antwerp composers for a quarter of a century, and taught them, in addition to thorough professional knowledge, a deep understanding of the aesthetic possibilities of music. His pupils include: Edward Verheyden, Jef van Hoof, Jan Broeckx and Jef Durme.
At the foundation of the Society of New Concerts, in 1903, Mortelmans was charged with the artistic direction. He informed the Antwerp public with the greatest conductors and soloists of the hour and made especially the German romantic music of Schumann, Brahms, Strauss and Wagner common to local musical life. As far as music from his own country is concerned, his attention was mainly focused on performances of Benoit's work.
During the war year of 1917, he lost his wife, Gabrielle Mortelmans, and two of his children: Frederik (called Frits) and Guido. His art carried the hallmarks of this domestic tragedy years later, among others in the Elegies for string orchestra.
In 1921 Mortelmans made an art trip through the United States, where many of his compositions (mostly Lieder) were performed and published.
After retiring as a director in 1933, Mortelmans stayed often in Waasmunster. In rural seclusion he continued with composing (mainly piano work and arrangements of folk songs) and with the development of a handbook for counterpoint.
Mortelmans was a member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium.
The Lieder are historically and aesthetically the most important part of Mortelmans' works, while in this genre the style development of the composer can best be followed. Six periods can be distinguished in Mortelmans' Lied production:
1. Romantic realism (1887-1896)
Through-composed or strophic text analysis, external lyricism in the melody, expressive chromaticism in the instrumental frame. eg. 'Te Meie' (Vosmaer); 'Ouwemansklacht' (Van Meurs); 'Nog gister hield ik u omvangen' (De Mont); 'L’ennemi' (Baudelaire).
2. Mood lyrism (1900-1902)
Triple ABA or through-composed; extensive motievic labor; text synthesis; inner lyricism in the melody; blurred chordal play in the instrumental frame, forming a sonorous bed in which the singing voice rests: 'Wierook' (Gezelle); sometimes polyphonic effect of the piano part and extensive preliminary, intermediate and re-enacting: 'De Vlaamse Tale' (Gezelle); colorful harmonization with numerous alterations: 't Pardoent' (Gezelle); according to conception, these are moody songs with a dreamy, indefinable atmosphere: 'k Hoore tuitend hoornen'.
3. First eclectic period (1903-1913)
Transition time where the romantic movement of the first and the sonorous refinement of the second period penetrate: 'Doornroosje' (De Mont).
4. Period of Introspection (1913)
Naturalism and youthful lyricism make way for self-reflection with dramatic tone and religious content. Text analysis, with emphasis and repetition of expressive words; simple, sometimes almost declaimed melody; harmonization with sharp appogiatures; simplification in voting (few decorations), bound structure with repetition and variation of melodic cores; instrumental setting has expressive, sometimes dramatic, function: 'Heere God' (Gezelle), 'Gaat van mij' (Gezelle), 'O mocht ik (Gezelle).
5. Second eclectic period (1925-1934)
Alternately, lieder belonging to the mood lyrism: 'Maagdeke Mei' (De Mont), to the narrative realism: 'Poverjanneken' (De Mont) or to the introspective direction: 'Schietgebedekens'.
6. Period of balance between expression and impression (1933-1952)
Text synthesis: limited melody on single tones; bound structure (usually strophic); light and transparent instrumental frame with sometimes color sounds, then simple counterpoint: 'Hoe zoet is 't' (Gezelle); 'Moederken' (Gezelle); 'Blijde Mei' (Gezelle) and 'Perels' (Gezelle).
The Lieder of Mortelmans are among the most refined products of the genre, not only in national but also in European respect. In summary, the main merits of the Lieder art are: complete, psychological unity of text and music; refined naturalism or dramatic expression; balanced plan with supple imagination in the details; graceful and striking melody; either expressive or painting instrumental frame, which forms an unbreakable unity with the singing voice.
The piano work of Mortelmans has a lunar character, with a long, independent melody ('Hartsverheffing'), a guiding character of harmonization and voice and usually an intimate tone (Miniatures). They are not concert pieces with virtuoso insights, but works for domestic musicians. Characteristics of Lied art, such as naturalism (Het wielewaalt en leeuwerkt) or dramatic introspection (Adagio religioso) can be found in it. Also the evolution from romantic lyricism to mood art occurs in the piano work.
The orchestral work of Mortelmans is less original. In some works, influence prevails in the structure and orchestration of Schumann and Brahms (Homeric Symphony). In other works Mortelmans comes to a more personal palette, lighter and more transparent, on the threshold of impressionism ('Mythe der Lente').
The opera 'De Kinderen der zee' (The Children of the Sea) belongs scenically to the romantic realism, while the score is indebted to Wagner, by chromaticism, melodic sequences and heavy, compact orchestration.
Mortelmans appears as a transition figure from romance to impressionism. Romantic are the early Lieder, most of the orchestral work, the opera and the early piano work. This romantic is expressed in lyrical melodies, chromatic harmonization, compact orchestration and outward movement.
Impressionism tends to mature Lieder, later piano works and some elements in some orchestral works. Impressionistic there are the dreamy mood, the limited melodic scope and tension, the hazy instrumentation, the sometimes colouristic, sometimes diffuse harmonization and the tone of inner compassion.
In the context of Flemish music and in particular with regard to his Lied art, Lodewijk Mortelmans, after the community art of Peter Benoit and after the bourgeois realism of Jan Blockx, has ushered in the era of individualistic emotion, the anesthetic artwork, the musical technique refinement and the feeling analysis.
In this respect, its cultural-historical significance can be compared with that of the 'Van Nu and Straksers' for literature.
Source: Algemene Muziek Encyclopedie